On 3 April 2011, Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a challenging and provocative way, issued a pastoral letter: Pastoral Care of Couples Who are Cohabitating. He begins his letter by clearly setting out the issue he is addressing:
"We are all painfully aware that there are many Catholics today who are living in cohabitation. The Church must make it clear to the faithful that these unions are not in accord with the Gospel, and to help Catholics who find themselves in these situations to do whatever they must do to make their lives pleasing to God.
"First of all, we ourselves must be firmly rooted in the Gospel teaching that, when it comes to sexual union, there are only two lifestyles acceptable to Jesus Christ for His disciples: a single life of chastity, or the union of man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony. There is no ‘third way’ possible for a Christian. The Bible and the Church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman and opposes same sex unions.
“We have three groups of people who are living contrary to the Gospel teaching on marriage: those who cohabit; those who have a merely civil union with no previous marriage; and those who have a civil union who were married before”
He goes on to issue six specific instructions, among which are the following:
"People in the above three situations cannot receive the Sacraments, with the important exception of those who agree to live chastely ('as brother and sister') until their situation is regularized. Of course, those in danger of death are presumed to be repentant....He ends his letter with this encouraging, yet challenging exhortation: "Our popular American culture is often in conflict with the teachings of Jesus and His Church. I urge especially young people to not cohabitate which is sinful, but to marry in the Church and prepare well for it.
"Nor are such people to be admitted to the role of sponsor for Baptism or Confirmation... It is critical for the sponsor to be a practicing Catholic - and can anyone be seriously called a practicing Catholic who is not able to receive the sacraments because they are living in sin?"
"Those who are married outside the Church because of a previous union are urged to seek an annulment through our Marriage Tribunal. If it can be found that the first marriage lacked some essential quality for a valid marriage, the Tribunal can grant an annulment. Your pastor can help someone start a marriage case for this purpose. It is important for such couples to continue to pray and get to Mass even though they may not receive Communion, until their marriage can be blest in the Church."
"I congratulate and thank those thousands of Catholic married couples who role model the Sacrament of Marriage according to the teachings of Jesus and his Church."
One of the most rewarding aspects of my ministry is assisting people in resolving just the kinds of marriage issues Archbishop Sheehan courageously addresses in his very challenging and, hence, very pastoral, letter to his flock. I have convalidated many marriages that did not require resolving a previous marriage, or attempted marriage. Conversely, I have assisted many people in resolving marriage issues before the Tribunal of our diocese. Many of these have been simple lack of form cases that can be resolved in just a few weeks. But I have also worked with people and seen them through the lengthy process of seeking a full-blown annulment. It is amazing how healing and strengthening this process is for many people, especially with the proper pastoral support and encouragement.
Conversely, when parents bring their children to be baptized, one of the questions I ask is if they are married in the Church. At least in my own experience, increasingly parents, even when both are Catholic, respond, “No”. So, I ask, "Were either of you married previously?" The answer to this question is often, "No". Then the obvious, "Why didn’t you get married in the Church?" The same is true about completing Christian initiation by being confirmed. Even when couples answer, "Yes, there has been a previous marriage," and we discover that, say, it can be easily resolved due to lack of form, there is quite frequently no follow-up (i.e., the required documents are not submitted) and so they go on as before.
Over the course of each year, I have the opportunity to teach the parents of our young people who are preparing for their first confession, confirmation, and communion. Our first session always consists of discussing the 5 precepts of the Church, (see Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 431-432). I always add to this list the obligation we have to observe what the church teaches with regard to marriage. This means reminding people that, as Catholics, if we are married, or planning to be married, we are just as obligated to be married in the Church as we are to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, go to confession at least once a year, observe days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church, receive communion at least once a year, and contribute to the material support of the Church.
After all, like priesthood, religious life, or the diaconate, marriage is a vocation. Look at how long and diligently people prepare for these other callings. Why should marriage, which is certainly more challenging in many regards, be so different? Rather, as Archbishop Sheehan implicitly asks, why should Christians who marry be so indifferent?
This is a good time to once again draw attention the USCCB's terrific website For Your Marriage. This is an excellent resource!